The American Conservative

How Political Parties Kill Our Commitment to the Good

The Bernie Sanders of 2017 once suggested that “reproductive rights are negotiable”; in other words, they aren’t a make-or-break issue for Democratic membership. But last weekend, Sanders argued the exact opposite: “I think being pro-choice is an absolutely essential part of being a Democrat.”

His reversal represents a sharpening divide in our parties, another symptom of the polarization that is prompting Americans everywhere to pick a side. In response to this growing divisiveness, I wrote a piece for the New York Times last week considering the dearth of options available to those of us who hold to a consistent life ethic (CLE), who believe that laws by themselves will not cultivate a fully “pro-life” culture. 

Of course, the Trump administration’s decision to embrace the pro-life cause and its platform is exciting and hopeful. As Trump noted in his speech at the 2020 March for Life, he has limited public funds accessible to abortion providers, nominated conservative-leaning Supreme Court judges, and defended the Little Sisters of the Poor, focal figures in our national debate over the intersection between health care access and religious liberty.

For many pro-life voters, these actions will be more than enough to secure their support for Trump in 2020. They do not necessarily care that Trump hasn’t “walked the walk”—as he applauded mothers in his March for Life speech, it was easy to forget that he has exhibited the behavior of a serial philanderer and misogynist. But as Matthew Walther noted in a column for The Week, Trump’s speech “was not the cautious rhetoric of the Republican National Committee—it was the red meat that serious social conservatives, easily the GOP’s single most reliable constituency, have craved for a long time.

Could Trump’s reelection be detrimental to the pro-life cause? Perhaps, perhaps not. I have worried in the past that the hypocrisy of Republicans like Trump might prove damaging, and there’s some indication that this fear may not be entirely off-base. According to a recent Gallup poll, there’s a mounting desire for less strict abortion laws—and a lot of this energy is coming from the left: “From 2001 through 2016…roughly equal proportions of Democrats favored stiffening versus loosening abortion laws. However, since Donald Trump took office in 2017, Democrats have been less satisfied with the nation’s abortion policies and significantly more likely to say the laws should be less strict.” 

It could very well be that Democrats would have responded this way even if Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz had become president four years ago. But it’s also possible that the dislike Democrats have for Trump himself has tarred their perception of the entire anti-abortion cause. One of the key goals of this year’s March for Life was to argue that being “pro-life” also means being “pro-woman.” But Trump’s actions, both prior to his election and after, have fostered the opposite perception.

It’s possible that support for or opposition to abortion is doomed to become another political football for the parties, something that gets tossed about from administration to administration, a topic that loses consensus with time. I increasingly worry that our stances on abortion will no longer have anything to do with conscience and faith, and everything to do with the posturing of our relative parties. This is what Sanders and Buttigieg (and others) are demanding of Democrats, after all: if you are going to call yourself “progressive,” you must dispense with all pro-life thought. You must join us in supporting abortion. 

And abortion is just one of many topics that are falling prey to this pressure and posturing. Consider health care, immigration policy, and foreign policy (to name a few): there are few subjects left to us that are not sharply divided by party allegiance. 

In her work “On the Abolition of All Political Parties,” Simone Weil suggested that our political parties often weaken our commitment to the good—which ought to be our only end and goal—because their primary purpose is not to serve that good, but to stir our collective passions, exert collective pressure on our minds, and thereby grow “without limit” their ranks. 

“Political parties are organisations that are publicly and officially designed for the purpose of killing in all souls the sense of truth and of justice,” she wrote. “Collective pressure is exerted upon a wide public by the means of propaganda. The avowed purpose of propaganda is not to impart light, but to persuade.”

But, she warns, “One cannot serve both God and Mammon. If one’s criterion of goodness is not goodness itself, one loses the very notion of what is good.”

We can choose to step outside of the fray in order to obey the dictates of our conscience, and remain united to the truth, to the good. To choose otherwise will inevitably, as Weil suggests, involve lying to one of three entities—your party, the public, or yourself. The first is “by far the least evil,” she notes. “Yet if belonging to a party compels one to lie all the time, in every instance, then the very existence of political parties is absolutely and unconditionally an evil.”

This is why, I think, pro-life Democrats are beginning to step away from their party. To remain true to one’s conscience—and truthful to the world and the public—are far more important than party allegiance. Weil’s warning should frighten all of us, on left and right, as we consider the many instances where parties are willing to adopt violence and injustice to serve their own profits and power: “the partisan spirit makes people blind, makes them deaf to justice, pushes even decent men cruelly to persecute innocent targets.” This could apply to the unborn, to refugees at the border, or to the victims of our proxy wars. We ought to ask ourselves: where has the partisan spirit made us blind? And how can we seek the good in days to come? What will that good require of us? 

In a 2015 Q&A with Wendell Berry, I asked him if his protagonist Jayber Crow, who is a deeply committed member of his community, was a “conservative.” 

Berry responded thus: 

It never occurred to me to think of Jayber as a “conservative.” I don’t think that would have helped, though he is instinctively and in principle a conserver. His membership is not in a party or a public movement, but in Port William. He is a man of unsteady faith in love with a place, a perishing little town, a community, a woman—with all that is redemptive and good—struggling to be worthy. I didn’t (and don’t) think of him as a “liberal” either.

Berry added, “I prefer to get along without political labels. They don’t help thought, or my version of thought. Since I’m self-employed and not running for office, I’m free to notice that those political names don’t mean much of anything, and so am free to do without them. I’m free, in short, to be an amateur.” 

The word “amateur” comes from the Latin word for love. It suggests action out of devotion, not out of profit—a determination to love and invest regardless of the personal gain one might or might not receive from the project. This is an attitude that goes against most party politics, and which can flourish despite our power or lack thereof in the Supreme Court, the White House, or the Capitol. It’s a demeanor that suggests that the actions one takes as a neighbor and friend are just as important as the decisions made at the ballot box. And it suggests that perhaps our membership ought to be less focused on parties and more on our towns, cities, and neighborhoods. 

So long as we start our sentences with “as a Republican” or “as a Democrat,” we are bound to a party line that demands something of us. But if we set aside such labels, we can then embrace the calling of Jayber: to be a conserver, to be people of unsteady faith “in love with…all that is redemptive and good—struggling to be worthy.” 

This is not realistic, you may protest. You want to know who to vote for in November. In that case, I can only argue this: vote your conscience and nothing else.

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